Data Over Dogma

dataThis can’t be stated often or emphatically enough. If you are willing to dismiss, suppress, or reject evidence because it conflicts with what you want to (or have been told you should) believe, then you are acting irrationally—by definition. And your judgement should be discounted accordingly.

While this situation usually comes up with regard to a specific topic, it reflects a larger problem with mindset. Sen. Marco Rubio demonstrated this most recently when, in an interview with GQ magazine, he was asked how old the earth is. After declaring “I’m not a scientist, man,” Rubio danced with all his might, ending with the declaration that “it’s one of the great mysteries.” (No Marco, it’s really not.) Rubio is previously on record as stating the “crux” of the disagreement is “whether what a parent teaches their children at home should be mocked and derided and undone at the public school level.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as being isolated to the topic of geology or evolution, something that doesn’t impact the lives of the vast majority of citizens.  Rubio asserts as much when defending his GQ statement.  He said this didn’t matter, pronouncing it “a dispute amongst theologians” that has “has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States.”

Yet, as I’ve argued in this space before, and as Paul Krugman points out in his recent column, it matters greatly. It matters because we are hindering a crop of potential petrogeologists who are limited to guessing where God hid the oil.  But moreover, it matters because we are teaching kids that evidence can be ignored if it’s uncomfortable. And it is this mindset which is particularly damaging, and not just to the field of science, and as Rubio has demonstrated, not just to kids.

We have adults rejecting global warming and progressive tax codes, not because of evidence, but because of ideology.  We saw dismissal and rejection of pre-election poll data, not because it was inaccurate, but because it supported the wrong conclusion.

We live in an increasingly technological world with a complex multinational economy. Our success as a society, a country, and a culture depends on our ability to carefully and rationally understand and control that abstruse system.  Reliance on irrational explanations and positions in the face of evidence backed models of the world is simply dangerous.

That is not to say that faith and ideology have no place in society. They add value to the lives of many. All the world is not explainable using logic and reason.  Faith and ideology help most fill the gaps. But where data and dogma collide… bet on data every time. All our futures depend on it.


There’s no Tea in Sanity

Tea-Party-MeetingBrad Plumer writes that the GOP party-wide rush to denounce climate change is being driven by a small minority of fervent Tea Party types.  While it’s an interesting read in its own right, there’s a larger subtext I find downright frightening.  There’s no reason to suppose these findings are limited to their climate fantasies.

Two points struck me:

Researchers on cognitive social networks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently found that “when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”

 

Tea Partiers are also by far the most confident in their beliefs — more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.” Note that this dovetails with earlier research finding that when you give those dismissive of global warming more information, it only serves to harden their doubts.

Self-identified Tea Party types make up just 12 percent of the population.  But that’s apparently enough to give them and their warped reality sway over public opinion and policy.  And there’s apparently little the rest of us can do to induce any sanity on them either.  The more we dump rational arguments and data on them, the further convinced they are about their delusions.

Are we doomed to the anti-science Christian theocracy they envision?  A world where our money is tied to gold, the government is apathetic to your plight, education is relegated to kitchen tables and churches, corporations are free to pollute their way to profits, unions don’t exist, and medical care will only be available to those with enough chickens to trade for it?

I’m certainly not expecting the GOP debate tonight to dissuade my fears.


Boehner says Net Neutrality is reinstating the Fairness Doctrine

Speaker John Boehner
Boehner ties Net Neutrality to a political agenda

Speaker Boehner addressed several tech points in his speech to the National Association of Religious Broadcasters on Sunday. He railed against Net Neutrality and new FCC regulations that he characterized as a government takeover of the Internet.  He went on to say:

“Now, you know the old saying: ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ Well in Washington, it’s more like, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, tax ’em and regulate ’em,” Boehner said in his speech. “So, some members of Congress and the federal bureaucracy are still trying to reinstate – and even expand – the Fairness Doctrine. To them, it’s fair to silence ideas and voices they don’t agree with, and use the tools of government to do it. “

Opposing Net Neutrality has been pretty standard Republican boilerplate.  Much like with the healthcare debate, the GOP prefers that corporations make decisions for consumers rather than the government. The new twist here is the conflation of Net Neutrality with the Fairness Doctrine.

The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 and required that broadcasters present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced.  Reagan overturned the policy by executive order in 1987.

Republicans are apparently afraid the Internet might become a place of fair and balanced treatment of controversial issues.  This is a confounding stance, not to mention that the distributed nature of content creators on the Internet would make such a rule impossible to enforce.  Yet the larger issue is that Net Neutrality has absolutely nothing to do with editorial content.

Net Neutrality simply guarantees that the ISPs who provide the backbone for and access to the Internet cannot preferentially treat one content type over another.  This assures that you have equally speedy access to Fox Nation and the Huffington Post.  It means your access to Netflix won’t be throttled by Time Warner, or that Comcast will cut a deal with Microsoft to make Bing twice as fast as Google.

There is nothing about any proposed or existing Net Neutrality rules that in any way attempts to legislate editorial content on the web.  Nothing.  Tying Net Neutrality to the Fairness Doctrine is either an act of colossal ignorance or a blatant attempt to mislead and confuse voters.

We report, you decide.


1 in 7 students are taught creationism in school

Evolution
Photo by latvian on Flickr

A recent survey of high school biology teachers shows the majority don’t take a solid stance on evolution with their students.  Fewer than 30 percent of teachers take an adamant pro-evolutionary stance, while the majority hedge on the topic in order to avoid potential conflict.  A full 13% openly teach creationism.

President Obama’s “Sputnik moment” call to inspire a new generation of science students stands in stark contrast to the stifled educations being offered to most of today’s kids.  The argument is often that teaching creationism as science might stunt a student’s biology career, but it shouldn’t prevent producing scads of software engineers and physicists.  But that’s sophistry.  A lot of the innovation space with the rapidly aging populace is in medicine and biology, so there is a need for people who really understand the life sciences.  But moreover, when a child’s early exposure to science of any flavor is basically that a bunch of whackos in lab coats have this nutty idea, but really the way the world works is something else, they learn an inherent distrust of science in general.  Why would a student want to pursue a career using the same fundamental techniques that yielded such “flawed theories” as evolution?  It requires a pretty significant cognitive dissonance to believe that biology, geology, anthropology, cosmology, and several other sciences are fundamentally wrong, but quantum physics is right on the money.

The prevalence of creationism in schools does matter.  Children require inspiration to pursue careers in science and technology. And teachers, especially science teachers, who don’t have enthusiasm for the field or reject the discipline altogether are certainly not being inspirational.

It would be easy but overly simplistic to dismiss this as just a problem in our schools.  The reality is that teachers are human.  They reflect the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the society as a whole.  Considering that repeated studies have shown about 45% of the population in general believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old, science teachers are already well outside the mainstream.  The answers here don’t lie in fixing the schools as much as in fixing society.  Children are not often motivated toward goals their parents openly reject.  When almost half of parents reject science as hooey, it’s not surprising that kids are not flocking to the field.

Industry doesn’t help here either.  While demand for science and tech jobs has picked up a bit, the outsourcing of entry level positions to overseas markets continues to make it challenging for average students to find work after college.  If the U.S. is to grow the next generation of talent, we have to be willing to plant the seeds domestically by hiring fresh grads.

In addition, society doesn’t treat science as credible, cool, or aspirational.  The CSI and Mythbusters television shows have helped make science seem a bit more interesting and mainstream.  But science and tech careers are still things perceived to be pursued largely by those geeky kids who seems inexorably destined for lab coats from birth.  Yet that minority of kids will not be sufficient to fuel a new Apollo program.

If this is truly a Sputnik moment, we need to inspire a big chunk of the “normal” kids to get their geek on.  Teachers are a part of that. Government is a part of that. But unless society as a whole embraces it, it will not succeed.


Our generation’s Sputnik moment finds few science students ready to answer the call

Sputnik
Sputnik means nothing if we don't go all Apollo on it

President Obama’s State of the Union address last night reminded Americans that our future depends on research and innovation.  The same day that results of the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress were released showing that only 21% of graduating high school seniors ranked proficient in science.  Moreover, only 1% ranked at the advanced level, deemed appropriate to pursue science at the college level.  Fourth and eighth graders were also evaluated, and the results were similarly disappointing.

Obama made repeated appeals in his State of the Union speech to the need for a workforce skilled in science and technology:

This is our generation’s Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven’t seen since the height of the space race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean-energy technology – an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet and create countless new jobs for our people.

We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time.

Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future – if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas – then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.

Over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

These are noble and vital aspirations. Yet the current state of our educational pipeline indicates we may be a decade or more away away from having students prepared to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) based careers.  Only 1% of our graduates are prepared to go on to study in scientific fields in college.  Fixing that is not merely a matter of funding or focus.  Even with the retooling of educational programs and an Apollo-level political will, it will take years and years to reeducate the current generation of students, or a decade to refill the educational pipeline with students who are properly prepared.

Achieving the economic goals outlined by President Obama are very much contingent on becoming a scientifically competent society.  As he said, “The world has changed.”  The days of toiling on an assembly line are gone.  Jobs that will allow our children to achieve the American dream require STEM skills and knowledge, and the foundation for that has to be laid in our schools.

This is not a path we are on.  And the results of our national school report card indicate it’s also not a path we are remotely prepared to travel.  This leaves us in grave danger of having our Sputnik moment sputter out and stall unless we unite behind this cause as one nation with one purpose, and hold that course for a generation.  Surely, this is a challenge worthy of the American spirit.